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Opinion: Will high speed rail be worth the wait for Nevadans?

(The following column by Richard N. Velotta appeared on the Las Vegas Sun website on March 31, 2010.)

LAS VEGAS, Nevada ó If Southern Nevadans are frustrated about whatís happening ó or not happening ó with high-speed rail in our part of the country, no wonder.

We have two companies with vision, with executives who refuse to talk to each other, and government officials who wonít take the lead in doing whatís best for Nevada.

That became apparent last week when new details of the $4 billion DesertXpress were released at a question-and-answer session where a model of the planned Victorville, Calif., station was unveiled.

The headline from the session was that environmental approvals for the project between Las Vegas and Southern California are taking longer than expected, but executives said they expect construction to begin this year.

ďItís all just process and working through the details,Ē
DesertXpress Enterprises President Tom Stone said at the briefing. ďNo environmental showstoppers have been identified.Ē

Stone explained that five federal agencies are a part of the process that eventually would give DesertXpress developers the green light to begin construction of their steel-wheels-on-steel-rail expressway.

The Federal Railroad Administration, a division of the U.S. Transportation Department, is the lead agency in the process, which also involves the Federal Highway Administration, the Bureau of Land Management, the Surface Transportation Board (formerly the Interstate Commerce Commission) and the National Park Service.

The Highway Administration is involved because much of the 185-mile route is within the Interstate 15 right of way, while the BLM controls most of the other land through which the line would pass. The Park Service is involved because one of the alignment alternatives could pass through a small portion of the Mojave National Preserve in California, just south of the Nevada border.

The route between Las Vegas and Victorville includes several alignment alternatives. Four potential sites for a station in Las Vegas and three in Victorville must be resolved. Stone said the agencies need to determine which alternatives affect the environment the least.

DesertXpress Enterprises is closing in on naming a financial partner that also will be responsible for the final engineering, construction, operations and maintenance of the system.

The progress made by DesertXpress to get as far as it has would be good news if it werenít for the systemís biggest flaw ó that the train goes to Victorville. Eventually, according to the plan, it will link to the California high-speed rail system at Palmdale, where passengers could connect to Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Diego to the south or San Francisco and Sacramento to the north.

The question is whether the Victorville-Palmdale link is going to be a priority for California transportation planners.

DesertXpress officials say the best-case scenario would be for construction on that link to occur as the Las Vegas-Victorville line is being completed in late 2014.

For now, all the attention is about moving Californians to Las Vegas ó which is good news for our tourism industry. The Victorville station will have a parking lot 1 1/2 times as big as Disneylandís, and DesertXpress officials are promising a Vegas experience from the moment passengers arrive at Victorville, with baggage checked into the hotel of their choosing when they arrive to take the train.

Itís still a fair question to ask whether Californians will brave the traffic to get to Victorville, only to abandon their cars, pay $100 for a train ticket, then have to rent a car or rely on taxis or public transportation while here. Californians have shown little appetite for abandoning their cars for anything.

Then thereís the vision of a rival transportation system led by the American Magline Group: a magnetic-levitation train system, unhindered by the steep grade of the Cajon Pass, that would link Las Vegas to Anaheim.

The maglev-DesertXpress rivalry has been characterized by some as competition, which it isnít.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, once a proponent of the maglev who has now thrown his support behind DesertXpress as showing more promise, says he isnít standing in the way of maglevís development. But to be fair, he hasnít exactly done maglev any favors.

Federal legislation that directed $45 million to maglev, which was to be used for engineering and the completion of an environmental-impact statement for the Nevada portion of the track, was redirected at Reidís urging to a highway project near McCarran International Airport.

A recent employment stimulus bill included language that supported funding for maglev projects ó but it exempted maglev spending in Nevada. How did that get in there?

Maybe it was just coincidental, but a few months after DesertXpress backer Sig Rogich formed a Republican support group for Reid, the senator moved his support to DesertXpress.

And as DesertXpress has gathered political momentum, lost in the dust are the technological advancements of maglev that are making it not only more operationally attractive, but more financially palatable.

The biggest rub against maglev has been its cost. Although one has to be skeptical about cost claims by maglev supporters, one also has to dismiss the overstated estimates of DesertXpress backers who havenít kept up with the advancements.

The German team working with American Magline Group is refining its guideway construction process to cut the costs of development and installation.

DesertXpress backers have said repeatedly that the fact that the only commercial maglev, which began operating in Shanghai in 2003, hasnít been expanded is because the technology is flawed.

The reality is that the Chinese government held back because of concerns raised about radiation emissions from the line. Scientists concluded the line was safe, and the government last month announced an expansion to link international and domestic airports in Shanghai as well as a new line from Shanghai to Hangzhou, totaling about 124 miles.

In another development, an American Magline spokesman quelled a rumor that maglev developers were looking at different routing ó south along the edge of the Mojave National Preserve ó that would have taken the system to Palm Springs and then west to Los Angeles and Anaheim along freeway corridors. Such a system would have added about 20 minutes to the L.A.-Las Vegas trip and would add the potentially lucrative Palm Springs market to the equation.

But American Magline says it isnít considering it.

So whatís next?

DesertXpress will continue its plans and likely will announce construction dates by the end of the year. Maglev will fight its uphill battle with little or no help from the people who can help it.

Both sides are engaged in serving up misinformation about the other. The government agency that seemingly is best qualified to separate fact from fiction, the Federal Railroad Administration, really isnít qualified. Its top maglev scientist has retired and the administration has fallen behind on maglev technology, leaving a bias toward conventional rail.

Stuck in the middle are Nevadans who wonít benefit much from the high-speed system that appears to have the lead in the effort to transport people to and from Southern California.

It isnít too late for a bold elected official from Nevada to take the lead in helping Nevadans get something out of high-speed transportation. But time is running out.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

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